Follow the crowds to the best Chinese food as the Year of the Rat dawns — or make these easy meals yourself at home, says Annabel Langbein. With dirnks matches from Yvonne Lorkin.
Until the 1970s, when chains including Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and McDonald's arrived in New Zealand, fish and chips ruled the takeaway scene. Chinese food was the other option but our mother, who had a fussy palate, wasn't partial to fish and chips or Chinese takeaways. Actually, she didn't care for eating at restaurants either — their prices and the inadequacy of their culinary offerings offended her sensibilities and she said she would rather cook at home.
And so my dad, sensing my nascent culinary curiosity, would sometimes take me downtown in Wellington to a tiny hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant on Vivian St. Plastic lanterns adorned with dragons hung from the ceilings, more dragons (painted that particular garish green you find in hospitals) glared from the walls, the tables were green and white Formica and the chairs chrome with green seat covers and backs.
As soon as you sat down, a plate of thinly sliced buttered white bread would arrive. It seemed out of place but there it was; a great pile of soft, white, buttered bread. We always ate some of it. The menu ran the gamut of what we now consider classic Cantonese-Kiwi favourites — in other words versions of sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, chow mein, chop suey, fried rice, chicken and cashew nuts, egg foo young and wontons. There were so many new flavours and ingredients to discover and, best of all, there were canned lychees with vanilla ice cream for dessert. It may not have been authentic but I loved it all.
Fast-forward a few decades and all around New Zealand you'll find the new wave of more authentic Chinese food taking form, from restaurants specialising in a particular regional cuisine, such as Shanghainese or Sichuan, to amazing noodle and mouth-watering dumpling bars and a plethora of yum cha restaurants. Some of the yum cha places are so large that the waiters need walkie talkies to manage the flow of hundreds of diners.
With the celebrations of the Lunar Festival starting tonight, Chinese New Year is upon us. Whether in the stalls at the night markets, at events put on by the Chinese community or at the Lantern Festivals held in the Domain in Auckland and Hagley Park in Christchurch, Chinese New Year is a great opportunity to enjoy some delicious authentic Chinese food. Go by the rule of "follow the crowd" and choose a place that's packed to the gunnels — chances are the food will be excellent.
Welcome to the Year of the Rat, a year of new beginnings and renewals.
Good luck seafood noodle platter
Ready in 30 mins
Serves 4 as a starter
When you mix this salad with your chopsticks, toss it upwards. The higher you toss, the better your luck for the New Year will be.
100g dried mung bean vermicelli noodles
160g sashimi-grade trevally, kingfish or albacore tuna, thinly sliced
5cm piece daikon, peeled and shredded
1 cucumber, shredded
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
½ red pepper, thinly sliced
2 handfuls bean sprouts
A handful of baby spinach leaves
¼ cup coriander leaves
2 Tbsp pickled ginger
2 Tbsp crispy shallots
Soy sesame dressing
¼ cup soy sauce or tamari
¼ cup rice wine vinegar
2 Tbsp sesame oil
2 tsp caster sugar
2 tsp chilli oil
A squeeze of fresh lime or lemon juice
Place noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave to stand for 5 minutes, then drain. Snip with scissors in a few places for easier eating. Set aside.
To make the dressing, place all ingredients in a small jar and shake well to combine.
To assemble, arrange the noodles in the middle of a large platter. Overlap slices of fish on top of the noodles and place the vegetables and garnishes in piles around the outside. Serve platter with the dressing on the side. Give your guests chopsticks so they can serve themselves.
Looking closely, the label of the Neck of the Woods Central Otago Pinot Gris 2019 ($25) is all spooky and ghosty and mysterious and shadowy and steamboaty but the wine itself is actually incredibly perky and packed with nashi pear, pink lady apple and slinky-fresh spices. The acidity is spot on, succulent and sends shivers down the gizzard. Neck of the Woods is the brainchild of A.J. Johnson, a long-time television industry professional who got the wine bug bad — and his gris will absolutely gird your loins if sipped with these seafoody noodles. neckofthewoods.co.nz
Chinese ginger fish
Ready in 25 mins
Fragrant with fresh ginger, this simple pan dinner sees the fish cooked in the sauce, no frying required.
1 cup water
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
4 tsp cornflour
½ tsp fine white pepper
2 Tbsp neutral oil
1 long red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
¼ cup finely grated fresh ginger
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
4 x 150-180g firm white fish fillets, such as monkfish, bluenose or blue moki
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds, to garnish
Rice and steamed bok choy or other green veges, to serve
Mix water, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, cornflour and white pepper in a small jug, stirring to dissolve cornflour.
Heat oil in a frying pan or wok over a medium heat. Add chilli, ginger and three-quarters of the spring onions and stir-fry to soften (1 minute). Add the cornflour mixture and stir until simmering and lightly thickened (2-3 minutes). Add the fish fillets to the pan in a single layer and spoon the sauce over the top to coat. Cover and simmer gently, without turning fish, until fish is just cooked through (about 5 minutes).
Divide between heated serving plates, top with sauce and garnish with sesame seeds and the reserved spring onions.
Serve immediately with rice and green vegetables.
Yvonne's pick: Get set to pour yourself the top gewurztraminer in the country. Yep indeedy, this glorious thing, the Wairau River Marlborough Gewurztraminer 2019 ($25) romped home with the Champion Gewurztraminer trophy at the 2019 NZ Wine of the Year Awards and it runneth over with turkish delight, ginger and peachy perfection. It was on the banks of the Wairau River (Maori for "many waters") that Phil and Chris Rose planted their first vines back in 1978, so you're fairly and squarely in Marlborough pioneer territory right here. Chinese ginger fish is the shizz with this, gee-wizz. wairauriverwines.com
Pork spring rolls
Ready in 50 mins + cooling
You can usually find dried mung bean vermicelli in the produce section at the supermarket, but if you can't, rice vermicelli is fine to use for these crispy moreish rolls. For an alternate sauce, make soy vinegar dipping sauce by mixing ½ cup soy sauce with ¼ cup black Chinese vinegar or rice vinegar and a couple of drops of chilli oil or sesame oil. Garnish with a little thinly sliced spring onion and toasted sesame seeds.
100g mung bean vermicelli noodles
1 Tbsp neutral oil, plus extra to fry
1 carrot, peeled and grated
2 cups very finely chopped cabbage
¼ cup water
500g pork mince
3 Tbsp oyster sauce
2 tsp fish sauce
2 tsp caster sugar
½ tsp chicken stock powder (optional)
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 spring onions, very finely chopped
3 Tbsp chopped coriander, plus extra to garnish
12 large square spring roll wrappers, cut in half
Sweet chilli sauce, to serve
Place vermicelli noodles in a bowl, cover with boiling water and allow to soak until softened (about 10 minutes).
While the noodles are soaking, heat 1 Tbsp oil in a deep frying pan. Add carrot, cabbage and water and cook for 1 minute. Add pork, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, stock powder, if using and pepper and cook, breaking up pork with the back of a spoon, until pork is cooked and cabbage softens. Remove from heat.
Drain noodles well and snip with scissors in a few places to create shorter lengths. Stir into pork and cabbage mixture, then set aside, stirring now and then. When the mixture is cool and the liquids have been absorbed, stir in spring onion and coriander.
To assemble, place 2 Tbsp filling along bottom third of each halved spring roll wrapper. Fold in ends and roll up tightly like a cigar. If not cooking at once, cover and chill for up to 24 hours.
Heat a little oil in a frying pan and fry spring rolls in batches until crisp and golden (about 2 minutes each side — the filling is cooked so you just need to crisp the wrappers and fully heat the filling).
Yvonne's pick: Yes, the Giesen Clayvin Single Vineyard Marlborough Pinot Noir 2014 ($56) sneaks up around the $60-something mark normally. It's worth every cent and some, especially if you're going to launch into these spring rolls. Clayvin is not only New Zealand's most famous, organic pinot noir vineyard, it's also one of the first close-planted, hillside sites in New Zealand, with a density of 5300 vines per hectare, whereas it's more common to plant around 2000 vines per hectare. And yet, just seven barrels were produced of this wine, so it's a rare thing to own. Matured for five years before release, it's velvety and succulent, edged with savoury notes, dried herbs, baked tamarillo and shows cheek-slapping cherry-ness on the finish. finewinedelivery.co.nz
Annabel's duo of Essential savoury and sweet books (Annabel Langbein Media, $65 each) create a beautiful compendium of her best-ever recipes and cooking tips. Alone or together, they make a wonderful gift or treat for yourself, and are on sale now at all good bookstores or online at annabel-langbein.com. Follow Annabel Langbein on Facebook or Instagram to find out more.